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How Nature Inspires Healthcare
By Sara Freiberg

Nature is filled with inspiration for technology: technology for architects, engineers, and the medical research community. We may like to believe that future innovation comes from our own human ingenuity; however, innovation is much more complicated than simply having great ideas. Regardless of our own human advances, identifying research becomes increasingly challenging as we attempt to address more complex issues and answer scientific questions. Time, materials, costs, and man power are crucial concerns when it comes to research and experimentation.

This is where nature comes in. It is happening all around us and it’s called biomimicry (bio life + mimicry to imitate). Native Americans have long used various flowers, tree bark, and plants for their medicinal properties and healing capabilities. A popular example is the poppy flower, which is used as an effective anxiety and pain reliever. Each day, researchers are discovering that many species hold the answers to much-needed advances in medicine.

Long-tail glasswing butterfly
A butterfly’s vibrant colors are used as a way to recognize their own species from afar, differentiate between males and females, and act as a camouflage to hide from predators. The long-tail glasswing butterfly is found from Central to South America and may be referred to as espejitos, or little mirrors, due to their wings being almost completely transparent, enabling them to remain hidden from predators.1 Would you find it fascinating to know their wings have inspired researchers to help those suffering from the second leading cause of blindness, glaucoma?2

Researchers at Caltech University began studying these see-through wing sections and noticed something amazing. They are coated in tiny pillars, each about 100 nanometers in diameter, spaced about 150 nanometers apart, approximately 50–100 times smaller than the width of a human hair.3

Eye damage from glaucoma is irreversible; therefore, closely monitoring patients’ eye pressure more often can prevent further damage. Researchers have created a thin eye implant sensor, which can monitor a glaucoma patient’s intra-eye pressure, revealing any changes. Patients can use their cell phones to read implant information, allowing doctors to address any potential issues in real time.4

Horseshoe crab
Horseshoe crabs have been in existence for more than 450 million years. These creatures are interesting not because of their 10 eyes or seven pairs of legs, but their blue blood. The color is due to the copper it uses to bind with oxygen versus iron that we possess, which gives our blood the red coloration. Their blood is so valuable that it may be sold for up to $15,000 per quart. What makes their blood so costly? Horseshoe crab blood has an extreme sensitivity to foreign contaminants. When E. coli, fungus, or bacteria come in contact with horseshoe crab blood, it immediately forms clots by a compound called limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL).5

Once caught, 30% of their blood is drained before they are returned to the ocean, where blood volume is recovered within three days, although some do not survive bleeding. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that any new drug or surgical implant be tested using LAL to ensure there is no bacterial contamination. Rather than continue to jeopardize the horseshoe crabs, researchers have discovered a synthetic substitute that mirrors the same effect.

Sandcastle worm
Living off the coast of California, the three inch-long sandcastle worm is quite the creature. They secrete an adhesive and stick pieces of sand and broken seashells together, making a tube-like shelter to accommodate them in some harsh underwater environments.

Bioengineers discovered that sandcastle worm glue is denser than water, doesn’t dissolve in water, is as strong as Super Glue, and solidifies very quickly. Researchers developed a synthetic water-based adhesive that can remain insoluble in wet environments, yet still bond to wet objects. This is particularly useful for tissue repair and gluing together small bone fragments in fractured wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, face, and skull, eliminating the need for hardware.6

Gecko
Have you ever been in awe with how a gecko can scale a wall and cling upside down on a ceiling? This is due to the millions of microscopic hairs, called setae, located on the bottom of their feet. In studying the gecko feet, researchers found that when the direction of the hairs is changed, their grip broke instantly, leaving no sticky residue behind. This inspired a bioengineer at the University of Massachusetts to create a synthetic adhesive material called Geckskin. It’s so strong that an index card-size strip can hold up to 700 pounds, mimicking the properties of gecko feet. They created the top of each tape with tiny bumps and a layer of glue made of biodegradable sugars, allowing the tape to stick in a wet environment and leaving no residue behind.7

This is especially useful because each year there are more than 1.5 million newborns and elderly injured by tears from tapes that hold endotracheal (ET) tubes and intravenous (IV) tubes on skin. Using Geckskin instead of conventional tapes prevents tissue trauma where sutures would be difficult to place on the delicate skin of the newborn and elderly population.8

Shark skin
Did you know that 98% of the medals won at the 2008 Olympics were won by swimmers wearing sharkskin fabric swimwear?9 The skin of a shark is covered with dermal denticles, flexible layers of placoid scales similar to small teeth. While a shark is moving, their dermal denticles create a low-pressure zone, pulling the shark forward and reducing any drag, all while keeping the shark very clean.10

Since the 2008 Olympics, sharkskin swimwear has been banned from Olympic competition; however, there are other uses for shark skin that are being created for the healthcare community. While the U.S. Navy developed a plastic film material, known as Sharklet, to prevent marine growth on ships, many hospitals are also using the film to inhibit bacteria and fight against cross-contamination on various surfaces, such as light switches, monitors, and patient catheters.11

Nature is our R&D lab
Sometimes the best solution to a problem isn’t always the most complex. When we look to overcome a scientific challenge, the odds are nature has beat us to the solution. Biomimicry is viewing, recognizing, and appreciating nature not based on what we can extract, but what we can learn from it. The next time you are with nature, observe a little closer and hold your gaze a little longer because it may hold the answer to a lifesaving treatment.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greta_oto
  2. https://www.glaucoma.org/glaucoma/glaucoma-facts-and-stats.php
  3. https://nano-magazine.com/news/2018/5/1/eye-implants-for-glaucoma-patients-inspired-by-butterfly-wings
  4. https://www.caltech.edu/about/news/butterfly-wings-inspire-light-manipulating-surface-medical-implants-82095
  5. https://www.scarce.org/what-has-10-eyes-blue-blood-and-outlasted-the-t-rex/
  6. https://phys.org/news/2008-11-superglue-sea-synthetic-worm-shattered.html
  7. https://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/article/stick-it-gecko-feet-lead-super-adhesive-geckskin
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3503228/
  9. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-speedo-created-swimsuit/
  10. https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/sharks-rays/biomimicry-shark-denticles
  11. http://www.healthcarebusinesstech.com/shark-skin-hospital/

Sara Freiberg, CST, CBSPDT, CER, has more than 15 years experience working as a certified surgical technologist, with five of those years spent traveling to various operating rooms across the U.S. Following Sara’s time in the clinical arena, she worked as a surgical technology didactic and lab instructor at Rasmussen College. Sara holds bachelor degrees in science and business and marketing, which led to her work with various medical device companies as a clinical specialist, product manager, and clinical training manager. She has experience working on quality and regulatory teams, monitoring patient-adverse events, and postmarket surveillance activities.

Sara currently works for Northfield Medical as a clinical education manager where she provides education which is based on current manufacturer and regulatory guidelines regarding various healthcare topics for SPD, OR, and GI staff. Training entails the care and handling of medical devices to ensure patient safety, as well as targeted education addressing departmental cost concerns. Her passion is working with SPD, OR, and GI departments; providing assessments; and sharing best practices with respect to patient and staff safety, surgical instruments, and medical devices. Sara is a voting member of the AAMI ST/WG84, ST91 flexible endoscope committee, and she has developed several CEU presentations approved through CBSPD, CBRN, NCCT, and IAHCSMM. Sara also authors a biweekly healthcare article for Ultra Clean Systems.

Sara is currently studying for the Certification Infection Control (CIC) exam through APIC.

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